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Perhaps you're a fan of the new dramatic TV series, "The Royals," about a fictional British royal family who face struggles like the death of the heir to the throne, conniving children and assorted romances.

But why bother with fiction when fact is more entertaining?

Consider the real life tale of 12th century King of England, Henry II, who faced struggles like the death of the heir to the throne (also named Henry), conniving children (sons Richard, John and Geoffrey) and assorted romances-Henry and exiled Queen Eleanor, Henry and French princess Alais, Richard and Philip, King of France. Did Eleanor poison Henry's mistress, Rosamund? Will Richard marry Alais or will Henry keep her for himself? Did Eleanor have an affair with Henry's father? Did Richard force himself on to Philip when they were both youths? Are Henry's three sons ready to commit murder to secure the crown? It's the stuff of playwright James Goldman's work, "The Lion in Winter," now at the Vagabond Players theater in downtown Baltimore.

Goldman puts forth a royal repast of delightful dialogue for the ensemble cast in this two-hour production to enjoy, and it is clear that they do-what actor worth his/her mettle wouldn't with lines like these:

Henry II: I marvel at you after all these years. Still like a democratic drawbridge: going down for everybody.

Eleanor: At my age there's not much traffic anymore. +++

Prince John: Poor John. Who says poor John? Don't everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!

Prince Richard: Let's strike a flint and see. +++

Henry II: The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings.

Eleanor: There'll be pork in the treetops come morning.

Director Steve Goldklang has assembled a fine cast who play these larger than life characters with high energy and aplomb.

Eric C. Stein is Henry, a formidable figure among formidable figures; ramrod straight, lines delivered with force when needed, with tenderness when required. Barbara Madison Hauck plays the somewhat thankless role of Princess Alais who admits, among the Kings and Queens she is "the only pawn," who has little role in determining her own fate. John Posner is Prince John who "has pimples and smells of compost," and those are his most redeeming qualities. Michael Zemarel portrays Henry's middle son, Geoffrey, a man with a mind of metal, but perhaps more feeling than either his parents realize. Baltimore community theater staple, David Shoemaker, is Richard Lionheart, who plays the consummate warrior with a self-imposed detachment, studying his family members like a general considering his opponents on the field. Nick Huber is the visiting King of France, Philip, who proves to have a burgeoning monarch's bright mind, but a boy's need for recognition and praise that is his undoing.

But delivering the most powerful and nuanced performance is Cherie Weinert as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor is like an Olympic runner in an obstacle course, moving deftly from plot to plot, manipulating each son as fits her needs, her transitions smooth as royal silk as she goes from loving mother to jealous rival and back again in her relationship with Alais, each pleasant chat with Henry a hard fought fencing match, but perhaps her greatest challenge-sitting in her dark room, facing her own mortality and the realization of love lost and never to be had again. Weinert's Eleanor is a lady, a schemer, a wife, a mother, a queen, but no matter what her role, her eyes are always on the prize...though what that prize is (Henry, the crown, her freedom, all of the above) depends on whether you're a romantic or a pragmatist.

Kudos to Goldklang for keeping the pace swift and the actors moving; there's no time for Hamlet-esque soliloquies in this play. The costumes, provided by A.T. Jones & Sons are spot-on for the period without making the cast look Renaissance Festival extras. Set designers and constructors Roy Steinman, Jay Demarco and Maurice "Moe" Conn do an admirable job in turning the Vagabond's modest stage into Henry's castle at Chinon, France in the year 1183.

The Vagabond Players' production of "A Lion in Winter" continues now through May 8th at 806 S. Broadway in

Fells Point. Shows are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and Thursday, May 5th at 8 p.m. Now celebrating it's 100th anniversary as "America's oldest continuously operating little theater," The Vagabond Players can be reached at 410-563-9135 or for ticket information.

PHOTO: Front: John Posner, Eric C. Stein, Barbara Madison Hauck. Rear: Michael Zemarel, Cherie Weinert, David Shoemaker, Nick Huber. Photo by Tom Lauer.

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From This Author Daniel Collins